Iraq: Minorities on the Verge of Genocide
03 Mar 2015
Amid news of the kidnapping of at least 220 Assyrian Christians by ISIS, two new reports highlight the plight of religious minorities in Iraq.
At least 11,602 civilians were killed and 21,766 wounded in the Iraq conflict between January and December 2014, many from ethnic and religious minorities in northern Iraq, according to UN figures. These groups have been targeted by ISIS in a systematic strategy to remove them permanently from areas where they have lived for centuries, says a new report, Between the Millstones: Iraq's Minorities Since the Fall of Mosul, produced by a consortium of four human rights organisations operating in the country: The Institute of International Law and Human Rights, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, No Peace Without Justice, and Minority Rights Group International.
The report says that evidence exists to suggest that ISIS forces have committed the crime of genocide against religious and ethnic minorities in northern Iraq, intentionally and systematically targeting the Yezidi minority in particular, but also Iraqi Christians, Turkmen, Sabaeans, Kakai and Arab and Kurdish Shia.
These minority groups have been subjected to gross human rights abuses, in what appears to be a deliberate ISIS policy aimed at destroying, suppressing or expelling these communities permanently from areas under their control.
Human rights violations are of an increasingly sectarian nature.
Meanwhile, according to a UN report The Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict in Iraq from September to December 2014, human rights violations in the Iraq conflict are of an increasingly sectarian nature. Anti-ISIS armed groups, including a number of Shia militias operating outside of government control, are active in several governorates, particularly in Diyala and Salah al-Din. Allegations of human rights abuses by these militias have emerged, including summary executions and abductions.
Both of these reports emphasise that this treatment comes amid a history of persecution and sectarian division in Iraq, with ISIS playing upon pre-existing sentiments in their attacks. According to William Spencer, Director of Institute for International Law and Human Rights, "minorities were first caught by wholesale discrimination and violence well before the arrival of ISIS. Now they face a new threat to their existence from ISIS attacks". As such, comprehensive social reform is recommended in the Between the Millstones report to help bring an end to the long-standing marginalisation and abuses suffered by minority groups in Iraq.
Summary executions, forced conversion, rape, sexual enslavement, the destruction of places of worship, the abduction of children, the looting of property and other severe human rights abuses and crimes under international law have been committed repeatedly by ISIS, says the report on Iraq's minorities. In areas that were taken over by ISIS forces, non-Sunni civilians have been forced to convert to Islam or face execution or imprisonment. Executions have also been carried out with the purpose of instilling fear and reportedly included mass killings of prisoners on religious grounds.
Individuals suspected of being disloyal to ISIS, including religious, community and tribal leaders, journalists, doctors as well as political and women's group leaders have been particularly targeted. During the September-December reporting period, at least 165 executions were carried out following sentences by ISIS-controlled courts, according to the UN.
There has been a campaign to eradicate the identity of religious minorities.
In addition to these human rights violations, there has also been a systematic campaign to eradicate the culture, history and identity of ethnic and religious communities in the areas under ISIS control. Buildings, monuments and other sites of significant religious, cultural and historical importance have been destroyed, including churches, mosques and tombs, as well as irreplaceable ancient manuscripts and texts of value to Iraqi Assyrians, Shabak, Turkmen, Yezidis and other minorities. These reports are corrobarated by a video that emerged in February 2015, appearing to show ISIS fighters destroying rare artefacts in a Mosul museum. This followed claims of ISIS fighters ransacking Mosul's library.
Tactics such as these represent an attempt to eradicate the region's diverse ethnic and religious identity in order to create a homogeneous Sunni Islamic territory.
This persecution has meant that Iraq's ethnic and religious minorities have also been disproportionately affected by a growing displacement crisis in the country. Since June 2014, the rapid spread of ISIS forces across northern Iraq has triggered a wave of displacement. Of these a disproportionate number are from minority communities originating primarily from Ninewa and Anbar, with more than 2.25 million uprooted, including more than 970,000 based in Iraqi Kurdistan alone.
After assuming control of Mosul, ISIS forces published a charter demanding that Christians pay a jizyah ( a tax paid by non-Muslims) and imposing harsh punishments including public cruciﬁxions. On 17 July, ISIS militants began to paint Christian homes with the Arabic letter 'Noon' (signifying Nasrani, a word used to refer to Christians) and with 'property of the Islamic State'. On 18 July 2014, ISIS members announced in all of Mosul's mosques that the Christian population had until noon of 19 July 2014 to leave the city or face execution. Mosul's Shabak population were similarly targeted by ISIS forces, with homes belonging to Shabak families marked with a 'R' (Raﬁda), a derogatory term for Shia Muslims.
Iraq's Yezidi community were not given the choice of the jizyah; their choice was to flee, convert or die. ISIS regards Yezidis as mushrikun or polytheists, rather than 'People of the Book', because of their esoteric beliefs. The community have been regularly targeted with violence as a result. Prior to June 2014, the 2005 population of 700,000 had reportedly fallen to approximately 500,000, with thousands of families having ﬂed to Syria, Jordan and other states. Over that time, numerous incidents of arbitrary arrest, discrimination and other abuses against the community were reported by human rights groups, including a 2007 suicide attack which left almost 800 dead.
Many Yezidis who did convert were subsequently killed.
Yezidis have also been particularly targeted for forced religious conversion. Some Yezidi men abducted during the ISIS attack on Sinjar were told they could convert to Sunni Islam or face execution. Nevertheless, many of those who did convert were subsequently killed.
Women in Iraq face high levels of gender-based violence, particularly those from minority communities, but this has been exacerbated since ISIS began to control territory in Northern and Western Iraq. Video evidence has emerged of the sale of Yezidi women in marketplaces and ISIS have themselves boasted of taking abducted Yezidi women as sexual slaves. In their English-language propaganda magazine Dabiq, ISIS justiﬁed the practice by saying the Yezidis were heretics and inﬁdels, claiming that it was therefore permitted in the Quran to treat Yezidi women as spoils of war.
Both reports make a number of recommendations based around preventing future abuses, and encouraging a meaningful reconciliation process between communities, as well as brining perpetrators of sectarian persecution to justice, after addressing the immediate humanitarian issues faced by religious minorities in Iraq. The United Nations recommends that the Government of Iraq implements inclusive social political and economic reforms aimed at ensuring social peace through reconciliation.
The Institute of International Law and Human Rights, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, No Peace Without Justice, and Minority Rights Group International report may be read in full here.
The United Nations report may be read in full here.
This article summarises two external reports, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
Sign up to receive the Roundup
Sign up to our Centre on Religion & Geopolitics Roundup to receive weekly updates with the latest commentary, analysis and news on the role of religion in conflict zones. Sign up here.